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1 Apr 2003 : Column 838continued
Mr. Llwyd: I do not know whether the right hon. Gentleman has any experience of criminal law in England and Wales, but video evidence is given in this way in every Crown court virtually every day, especially by youngsters and children, without presenting any problems for the defence or the prosecution.
Mr. Knight: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, but I do not think that he has a valid point. Of course this happens every day in the United Kingdom, but in cases in which the witness is also in the United Kingdom. We know that we have a fair and just system, but what about cases in which the witness is overseas? How are we to know that the circumstances surrounding the giving of evidence by a witness will be fair under an overseas regime? That is my concern. Indeed, the hon. Gentleman's intervention rather makes my point. I am relaxed and satisfied by video evidence given in this country because I know that we have the highest possible standards. But what about the so-called justice overseas, which might fall well below the standards that we expect and maintain in this country? That is the point for the Minister. Will he reassure me that the same procedures will be in place for video evidence given overseas as is in place for such evidence given in the United Kingdom?
Mr. Cash: One of the problems that arises is that, these days, it can be difficult to tell whether video evidence has been tampered with. Don't ask me why that is the case, but one or two recent cases have suggested that people simply cannot tell whether it has been tampered with. Would it not be a serious worry that such evidence were being made available to the courts, if the video system did not accurately reflect what was actually being said?
Mr. Knight: My hon. Friend makes a point with regard to recorded work on video. It is certainly possible to edit a recording in such a way that the person speaking might appear to say something completely different on the edited version from what was said on the original recorded tape. I am not sure whether that
Chris Grayling: My hon. Friend makes an interesting point. It would also be interesting to know the status of video evidence of the kind that he describes in a case in which the European arrest warrant was being used, and to know whether that would be a vehicle that might permit an investigation or arrest to take place based on such questionable circumstances.
I have other concerns, particularly relating to clauses 54, 55, 56, 57 and 58, which cover the recognition in the United Kingdom of foreign driving disqualifications. I can understand where this idea came from. My hon. Friend the Member for Stone said that we should all encourage good driving, whether here, in Spain or in any other part of the European Union. We also expect certain levels of fair play in this country, however. We would expect a United Kingdom citizen to be disqualified only for an offence that would carry a disqualification over here.
I understand that several states of the United States of America have introduced a yob-busting system. It is known that most young people want to own and drive a motor car, and so offences such as theft, dishonesty or violence carry the sentence of losing one's driving licence. I am worried that if United Kingdom citizens on holiday abroad had too much to drink and became involved in a fracas, they would expect to be punished with a modest fine, not lose their driving licence. If the provisions were implemented, such people would discover that because they had lost their ability to drive overseas, they had also lost their ability to drive in this country, which could lead to the loss of their livelihoods. There could be serious consequences for many people in the United Kingdom.
Mr. Swayne : There would, of course, be contributory negligence on behalf of a citizen so affected. My right hon. Friend will know that it is not long since the Government proposed that people who did not pay their dues to the Child Support Agency should lose their licence.
I hope that the Minister will give an undertaking to consider modifying several of the Bill's provisions. They provide that the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency in the UK will be obliged to implement overseas disqualifications unless a disqualification has less than a month remaining. I ask the Minister why there is no provision to allow discretion to be applied and for a shorter disqualification to be imposed. Why does the Bill not include a system whereby if examination in the United Kingdom showed that the disqualification was too severe or unfair, or that it was a punishment for an offence that does not carry an equivalent penalty here, the English courts could substitute the period of
Mr. Knight: That depends on the circumstances of the case. A person may be convicted overseas of an offence for which an overseas court would impose a disqualification, whether that is fair or not. However, the disqualification might be out of all proportion to the offence, or UK subjects might not have been able to anticipate such a punishment. It is asking a bit much to expect UK citizens to know the ins and outs of foreign law. It is said that ignorance of the law is no defence before the English courts. However, if people broke the law in a foreign country and they were not aware that they would risk being fined and losing their driving licence, that should be a mitigating factor because the punishment might lead them to lose their livelihoods andif they were unable to keep up their mortgage paymentseven their property. The Bill should give UK courts the ability to decide whether the disqualification is fair. If the courts considered it to be fair, they could leave the period unaltered but if they considered it unfair, they could substitute a shorter disqualification. I would argue that the courts should be able to substitute a nil disqualification if they considered that the disqualification was causing a person undue hardship.
Chris Grayling : My right hon. Friend may be interested to note that clause 56(4) refers to a minimum period of six months, except when the conviction relates to a prescribed state. What constitutes a prescribed state is not immediately apparent. However, my right hon. Friend knows that sentences of much less than six months are passed for offences such as speeding. They might be for 14 days, one month or three months. The Bill does not make clear the way in which a court or driving authority in another country would handle such circumstances.
Mr. Knight: My hon. Friend is right. I have every confidence in the judicial system in this country. Many magistrates who are faced with a case in which they believe that an offender should be disqualified but hear that he needs his licence for work, will ask the defendant, "Have you taken your holiday from work yet?" If the answer is no, they will ask, "How long are you entitled to a year?" If he replies, "Three weeks," they will often disqualify the defendant for that time. That is done deliberately to ensure that the effect of the disqualification is not disproportionatein other words, that the defendant does not lose a livelihood through a mid-ranking motoring offence. I hope that the Under-Secretary will tackle those genuine anxieties when he winds up the debate.
I share some concerns with my hon. Friend the Member for Stone about foreign police officers roaming around the English countryside. We all know that a police officer who is not a member of the CID and investigates a crime has to wear a police uniform. What will be the position of foreign police officers? Will they
Interfering with a police officer who is carrying out proper inquiries or assaulting a police officer are specific offences that relate to a person who is a serving member of a constabulary. Will foreign police officers have to wear their uniforms? If so, what happens if the uniforms do not make it immediately clear to a UK citizen that those wearing them are police officers?
Mr. Knight: That is a fair point. If it is decided not to wear a uniform for efficiency reasons, will foreign police officers have to carry an identification card, which is printed in English and would make it clear to a UK citizen that he is dealing with a member of a police force? The Bill is strangely silent on that. The Bill should include a provision to safeguard UK citizens from heavy-handed police tactics by officers from overseas.
Our system has a well defined method for making complaints. I have the highest regard for our police but, now and again, they fall below the standard that we expect. A police complaints procedure is in force to deal with that. What happens if a foreign national, who is carrying out a surveillance operation here, behaves thuggishly towards someone who is not directly related to the inquiry? What complaints procedure will be applicable in such cases?
Of course, we appreciate that crime has no frontiers and that, consequently, crime detection should have none. However, when we try to dismantle barriers by allowing foreign police officers to undertake surveillance work in the United Kingdom, we should examine the safeguards. There is a good argument for saying that as one removes the barriers one has to increase the safeguards. No Member of the House would want to have rules such as those that applied in the United States 100 years ago. We have all seen those old cowboy films in which the baddies make their getaway by crossing the state line. Once over it, they know they are free from arrest for an offence committed in another state. Of course, no one wants such an arrangement to be introduced across Europe, but if we are facilitating greater co-operation we need to ensure that greater safeguards are in place.
Before drawing my remarks to a close, I should refer to my only other reservation, which relates to what my hon. Friend the Member for Stone called the Henry VIII clause. I prefer to call it the Minister's carte blanche clause. It is bad law-making to include such provisions in every Bill. If the Bill becomes law in this or an amended form and the Minister wants to make changes a few months down the line, he should have the courage to return to the Dispatch Box to tell the House what he wants to do. He should not hide behind a catch-all clause. I hope that he reflects on the points that I have raised and that, in due course in Committee, he is prepared to amend the Bill.